When someone in Godsbarrow dies at sea, the Headless Child lays claim to them.
If they died in sight of their own god, or gods, or if their faith was strong enough, the Child cannot take them. But if not, they join the Endless Fleet, serving its unspeakably cruel captain for eternity.
And the Endless Fleet has but one mission: to bring ruin to all of Godsbarrow, and to the gods who murdered the Headless Child at the dawn of creation and discarded Its corpse into the sea — or abetted those who did, or stayed silent and did nothing.
The Child’s appetite for vengeance is as black and bottomless as the sea, and as endless as Its fleet.
: This idea grew out of the concept of the Black Fleet, in which Klingons who died honorably sail after death, which I first heard about in an early episode of Star Trek: Discovery. I’ve already got a black ship in Godsbarrow — what about an endless fleet, instead? And one in which no one sails voluntarily? And what’s the creepiest captain I can think of for that sort of fleet?
The rest flowed out of a recent session of Follow I played with my online group. We’re playing rather unpleasant gods trying to regain our former glory, and touching on hells and limbos and other unifying cosmological concepts — an area I’ve largely left unexplored in my Godsbarrow work to date.
While I was on vacation, away from my Godsbarrow map and the text file where 99% of my notes live, I kept my worldbuilding streak going by emailing myself Godsbarrow ideas. Once I’d done two small gods, rounding things out with a third felt right. I haven’t explored small gods much yet, focusing instead on regional ones, so this was a fun change of pace.
The Spynix Mandus
The Spynix Mandus, the largest pirate vessel in Middenglum’s Red Flag Isles, is in fact a small god. The constant storms, acidic seas, and tearing winds of the region keep it weak by deity standards.
It needs only the worship of its crew to survive, and in the unforgiving environment of Middenglum obtaining even that is a struggle. Most of its crews never even know it’s a god, they just respect its size and power as a vessel. Crews it deems unworthy of it don’t last long.
If the Spynix Mandus ever fell into other hands, more organized than the fractious Red Flag pirates, in calmer waters, and attracted more worshippers, this god-ship would become a force like no other on Godsbarrow.
Polnos Yalba is a small god that is also an inn.
Its location is not fixed. Quite the opposite: Polnos appears in a new location, recharges its spiritual batteries by welcoming guests, and then vanishes without warning, beginning the cycle anew.
It can be a charming place, a terrifying one, a staunch ally, a last-ditch redoubt, or a fickle, fey-touched entity. Its size, style, and other elements often change from one appearance to the next. To date, it has never lingered anywhere longer than a year.
The Selezeer Swords
The Selezeer Swords are a family of blades whose lineage spans centuries. The Selezeer family tree looks much like a human family tree, with generations of swords, child-swords, and branches that bear little resemblance to the trunk.
Each Selezeer sword is a small god. They vary in appearance and motivations, but are always sentient weapons of exceptional quality.
Apart from that, they have little in common. Some branches of the Selezeer family tree are indolent blades, preferred to stay tucked away in their scabbards, while others revel in battle-lust and keep a tally of the lives they have claimed. Some make their nature known to their wielders; others stay silent, never revealing who they are.
Aausti sages estimate the number of Selezeer swords at somewhere between 120 and 200 (although of course they have no way to be certain). Despite the claims made in a popular series of ribald Sou folk songs, it is not known how the Selezeer swords reproduce.
This post catches Yore up to all of the Ice Courts material I’ve finished to date. I’m still working on historical events (a couple to go) and relationships/wants (lots to go). As always, the headers are steps from Worlds Without Number [paid link].
Create six nations or groups of importance.
Ahlsheyan (“all-SHAY-ahn,” linguistic touchstone: Proto-Turkic), a chilly, windswept dwarven kingdom which abuts the Unlucky Isles to the south. Ahl dwarves are equally at home deep underground and plying the waves. The three pillars of Ahl society are wind, waves, and stone (representing impermanence, opportunity, and the past, respectively). Ahl “wind sculptures,” made of stone shaped so as to change in interesting ways as they are worn away by wind and weather, and not sold or exhibited until decades after they were first made, are famous throughout Godsbarrow.
Valkenschirm (“VAL-kenn-shurm,” linguistic touchstone: Old High German): The heart of the Ice Courts, and the center of all court politics in the region. What Valkenschirm lacks in size and martial power it more than makes up for in magical power: Most Valken are werewolves, and Abäschern’s still-magically potent corpse is entombed here. Years of intermarriage and close ties between the nations of the Ice Courts mean that many outside Valkenschirm are also at least part werewolf (considered a noble blessing), perhaps manifesting only minor signs of their nature.
While every Ice Court nation competes to be the preeminent regional power, Valkenschirm has held onto that honor for generations. The best balls, the best hunts, the best spellcraft, the best masquerades that lead to the best diplomacy — all of that happens here. Much maneuvering goes into ensuring that others must travel here — suffering the privations and facing the dangers of the trek — in order to really be playing the game of intrigue.
Since Abäschern’s assassination, Valkenschirm’s most potent tool in this regard has been his tomb. There are celebrations, rituals, and other events related to his tomb and death every year, and Valkenschirm has ensured that high society folks feel compelled to attend them — and to make the long, dangerous journey that entails. The other nations hate this.
One of the most coveted solutions to the problem of staying warm in a land with few trees is heatstones. Mined from deep beneath the Vulkanöl Mountains, these stones are always warm to the touch. One can keep a traveler alive in a storm. Three can heat a tent. Fifteen (or a larger, more valuable stone) can warm a hall — forever. More blood has been shed over the extraction, disposition, and possession of heatstones than would have been lost if these rocks never existed in the first place.
Celestial Duchy of Skølprene (“SKOOL-preen,” linguistic touchstone: Old High German, and as a reminder to myself, duchy is pronounced “DOO-chee” not “DOO-kee”): Skølprene purports to hold itself above the diplomatic fray that is the Ice Courts. The dominant religion, the Celestial Harmony of the Living Abäschern (commonly shortened to “the Harmony”), is based on doing good works, performing charitable acts, and philanthropy. Their “deity” is the “living ghost” of Abäschern, who doesn’t have a ghost; he’s dead. The entire faith is a sham.
This suffuses the culture of Skølprene, even among the half-wolves (with close ties to Valkenschirm), those outside the Harmony, and transplants from other lands. Underneath all the outward lovey-dovey positivity of the Harmony, human nature being what it is, sits a rotting foundation of lies, scheming, religious blackmail, dark rituals, and all manner of nastiness that takes place behind closed doors. In a region best known for mushroom pirates, eternal winter, and a country of werewolves, Skølprene is the most dangerous place in the Ice Courts…it just doesn’t look like it.
Myedgrith, Shining Lamp of Eternity (“MEEYED-grith,” linguistically it’s a mix of Old High German and made-up stuff, reflecting its history): How pretentious is Myedgrith? One, there’s a comma in the name of the country, and two, they’re particular about you referring to the country by its full name, comma and all: Myedgrith, Shining Lamp of Eternity. Pretentiousness is an art form in this majority-dwarven nation.
Always the most decadent area in the single nation that preceded the Ice Courts (which broke apart when Abäschern died), Myedgrith has leaned into that. Pleasure, putting on airs, and one-upping everyone around you are the heart of Myedine culture, leading in turn to an emphasis on overwrought artwork (e.g., an ice sculpture that takes 10 artisans a year to make, which is then melted for fun during a single lavish party), rich food, and petty disputes between housebound families (trapped by the climate and weather) that blossom, over the years, into bitter, elaborate blood feuds.
While there’s ostensibly a central government, Myedgrith is really a loose conglomerate of interrelated, feuding families who constantly jockey for position — only coming together when there’s a chance to expand the influence of Myedgrith, Shining Lamp of Eternity within the Ice Courts.
Zull Pyrendi (“zool pye-RENN-dee,” no linguistic touchstone): Mushroom pirates! Each island in this archipelago is home to its own massive fungal entity, with a roughly equal amount of fungal biomass above and below ground. The strange properties of these fungi have kept Zull Pyrendi from suffering the full effects of the Abvärwinter, and consequently the archipelago is the warmest place in the central Ice Courts.
Each fungal entity (a sort of massive hive mind, just like some fungi in the real world) spawns its own “children,” and for reasons of their own many of these fungus people become pirates. (The actual reason is because mushroom pirates are cool.) Most other mushroom folks are either farmers (and boy does mushroom farming look weird), who supply food to the snowbound Ice Courts, or diplomats, whose approach to intrigue is rather…unique.
While neither Lonþyr or Yrfeđe is part of the Ice Courts proper, 1) they’re on its map, and 2) they’re close enough to have political and other connections to the region.
Yrfeđe (“EHR-feth,” linguistic touchstone: Old English), in the northeast, is a superstitious land of dense forests, high winds, and harsh weather. Closely connected to Lonþyr by ancestry and culture, the two nations have been at odds for centuries. Yrfeđe is a rough-and-tumble place known for its timber, fish, and fortified towns, but infamous for the Wyrdanwod. The Wyrdanwod, particularly its eastern half, is home to the much-feared đargnr (“THAR-ghnir,” which means “sleeping shadows” in Emnian), who slumber inside ancient trees, or beneath the earth, and travel the Wraithsea at night to feed. Everyone in this bedeviled place carries a torch, candle, lantern, or other light source — as bright light is one of the few things that can harm a đargnr.
Lonþyr (“LONN-theer,” linguistic touchstone: Old English), along the coast of the Greatwater Āŕ, is a small country rich in gold, silver, and gems — the mineral wealth of the Mormú-Hús Mountains (off the Ice Courts map to the north), which Lonþyr has pillaged for centuries. Always seeking to encroach further into Mormú, Lonþyr is constantly fighting Grshniki guerrillas in the foothills — and struggling to retain its foothold on the southern end of Many Sorrows Pass, the only overland trade route connecting it to the northern Gilded Lands.
Lonþyr and Yrfeđe were once a single country; now, they’re feuding neighbors bound by bloodlines that span their shared border. The đargnr that plague Yrfeđe don’t trouble Lonþyr, which provokes much bitterness among the Yr. Long ago, Lonþyr pulled something dark and strange from the deeps beneath the Mormú-Hús Mountains, and this artifact — the country’s most closely-guarded secret — is what protects them from the đargnr.
Identify regionally-significant gods.
Valkenschirm is a mix of non-worship (their god is dead, and good riddance…though not everyone feels that way) and a stew of faiths and pantheons from outside its borders, which Valken nobles try on like shoes or ball gowns. This has led to Valkenschirm being a popular destination for proselytizers from many faiths across Dormiir — and, given the stereotypical Valken attitude towards deities, has also put the nation on the radar of several hostile gods who don’t appreciate being taken so lightly.
To make matters more muddled, the Scions of the Wolf are a local religion based on the blessing of lycanthropy, officially without a deity — though the hardcore believers say that Abäschern, or at least the non-shitty parts of him, lives on in all of them. Like much in Valkenschirm, it’s confusing.
The Harmonious and Celestial Abäschern — essentially Abäschern’s ghost — is worshipped in Skølprene, and is very nearly the state religion. Worshippers believe that Abäschern didn’t die but instead merely changed state, ascending from godhood to an even higher plane of celestial existence. They’re wrong: Abäschern is just dead. There are those in Skølprene who recognize this — but it’s an exceedingly dangerous thing to say out loud.
Outsiders joke that Myedgrith, Celestial Lamp of Eternity, is its own god — and they’re not entirely incorrect. By and large, the Myedine are glad to have Abäschern gone and have embraced non-worship. But there is also a persistent — and dangerous — strain of orthodox Abäschern worship alive and well in Myedgrith, the Black Pelts, who worship Abäschern’s corpse as if it were still alive. The fact that the corpse is entombed in Valkenschirm does not sit well with the Black Pelts…
The Zull worship no gods. Or, from an outsider’s point of view, their notion of god, self, nation, and city is one, and that one is each island’s respective fungal entity and its “children.”
Ahlsheyan’s tripartite pantheon is covered in the Unlucky Isles write-up — though some southern Ahl did worship Abäschern, and now find themselves either adrift and godless, doubling down on the Ahl faith, or taking a page from Valkenschirm’s book and sampling other pantheons.
Yrfeđe and Lonþyr share a pantheon; it’s covered in the Gilded Lands write-up.
On a side note, why not “atheism” instead of “non-worship”? I’m an atheist, so it’s nothing to do with real-life religiosity. In Godsbarrow, gods are real, evident, and walk the earth — as they do in Greek mythology (which is my default touchstone for how gods work this setting). Atheism isn’t really a thing in Godsbarrow because there’s no question that gods exist. One of them rules the country of Kuruni; you can have a beer with her, if you’re brave enough. Another’s corpse lies in state in Valkenschirm; you can come and spit on his tomb, if you’re brave enough. So I use “non-worship” because it makes more sense in the context of Godsbarrow than “atheism.”
Make a sketch map of the region.
I started with the map, as has become my habit, and worked on it in parallel with the written worldbuilding. It’s at the top of this post.
I have a little Godsbarrow side project bubbling away that’s competing for my writing time, which is part of why I haven’t finished the Ice Courts yet. But I am starting to feel the itch to work on a fresh region, so maybe that’ll goose me into wrapping this region up sooner than later.
My fourth region in Godsbarrow is two map “tiles” wide, sitting south of the Unlucky Isles and the Gilded Lands. It’s the map where most of Ahlsheyan sits, plus the rest of Lonþyr and most of the rest of Yrfeđe — and new nations, of course.
As you can see above, I finished the map before the write-ups (and I’m actually still working on the tail end of the written material). But for this post I’m jumping in with the first step from Worlds Without Number [paid link]. As always, this is more or less straight from my notes in Notepad, not fully polished (etc.).
Name the region.
The Ice Courts, so called because this region is a hotbed of courtly intrigue locked in perpetual winter. Though climate and geography have always made this a cold region, the unnatural winter stems from the death of a god: Abäschern, the Wolf of Summer (“ah-bay-SHURN”). Abäschern once blessed the land, ensuring that despite its climate and geography the region was arable and full of game to hunt, and blessed its people by making them werewolves. But in time he became bored with the world, and his petty streak turned to outright cruelty. He reveled in the thrill of twisting the land to his ends and hurting his followers, and the entire region became a dark place.
A few centuries ago, the people of what is now the Ice Courts rose up, threw off their shackles, and assassinated Abäschern — and with his dying breath, the wolf-god cursed them unto a thousand generations, casting the land into winter. The curse, plus the warped energy of his magically-active corpse, keeps the Ice Courts frozen to this day.
Valkenschirm (“VAL-kenn-shurm,” linguistic touchstone: Old High German) is the heart of the Ice Courts. What Valkenschirm lacks in size and martial power it more than makes up for in magical power: The majority of Valken are werewolves, and Abäschern’s still-potent corpse is entombed here. Years of intermarriage and close ties between the nations of the Ice Courts mean that many outside Valkenschirm are also at least part werewolf (considered a noble blessing), perhaps manifesting only minor signs of their condition.
Part of the reason the Ice Courts are so full of courtly rules, fancy balls, intrigue, and polite skullduggery is that it’s too fucking cold to spent time outside. Since Abäschern’s fall, what was once one nation has split into several, and the region’s focus has turned inwards, socially and literally, with lots of infighting, political maneuvering, and posturing. Alongside centuries of refinement of this culture of intrigue, each nation has also developed its own approaches to surviving in a place where winter is the only season (magic combined with burrows or structures, digging down to geothermal vents, underground mushroom farms, peculiar trees that bear food — not just fruit — all year long, etc.).
Choose about six major geographical features.
The Abvärwinter (“abb-FAIR-win-tur”), the local name for the area cast into perpetual winter by Abäschern’s curse, which comprises most of the Ice Courts region
Kyögüŕ Sound (“KYU-goorh”), windy and partially iced-over, which separates most of Ahlsheyan from the rest of the Ice Courts
The Tadlungwort (“TADD-loong-vort”), the only forest that survived the coming of the Abvärwinter, a strange evergreen wood full of even stranger animals
The Zull Pyrendi archipelago, largely unaffected by the Abvärwinter despite being close enough that it too should be snowed under
Vulkanöl Mountains (“VULL-kann-ole”), the massive range that covers a large portion of the Ice Courts region
Webegezeug Mountain (“veh-BEGG-uh-zoyg”), the tallest peak in the Vulkanöl Mountains — and one of the highest in all of Dormiir, well over 8,000 meters
The next step, nations of importance, is long enough for a post of its own. Onwards!